Elon Musk’s “3-Step” First Principles

Thinking: How to Think and Solve Difficult Problems Like a Genius by Mayo Oshin, published in Business Insider on 22nd March, 2019

STEP 1: Identify and define your current assumptions

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
– Albert Einstein

STEP 2: Breakdown the problem into its fundamental principles.

“It is important to view knowledge as sort of semantic tree. Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.” -Elon Musk.

STEP 3: Create new solutions from scratch

Once you’ve identified and broken down your problems or assumptions into their most basic truths, you can begin to create new insightful solutions from scratch


Cognitive Principle Therapy has used this “3-Step” approach since 2003. In psychology the “3-Step” process for conducting therapy is:

STEP 1: Identify and define your current assumptions

The first assumption is that all behaviors are the result of 4 step process, which is

Trigger-Pattern Match-Prediction-Action [behaviour]

What is the current problem?:

A client [teen age male] arrived in my office on 23rd March, 2019 [ today] with an anger issue. He joined his mates in a fight with another group of associates and one ended up in hospital and all have been charged with assault and affray. He stated his anger arises quickly, but he gets over it quickly. I do not need to know any more information on cause of the trigger or the resulting behaviour.

The second assumption is that all repeated behaviors are the result of unresolved issues from the past. Also, that anger arising and falling quickly, is explosive anger, and is most likely a tantrum.

Question: Have you always had an anger issue or was this a particular situation?

Question: Did you have tantrums as a child?

Answer: “Always had anger issues and I did throw tantrums as a child. I argue with my mother on most days. I break things during an argument.”

STEP 2: Breakdown the problem into its fundamental principles.

The CPM chart below identifies this situation as a respect issue. The anger needs to be converted to assertiveness and then to respect.

STEP 3: Create new solutions from scratch.

In this example the therapist doesn’t create the solution from scratch, but the client does. The therapist does the following:

  1. Provides psycho-education about how the conscious-subconscious mind works, in particular, how the mind creates bad habits, based on past comparisons and predictions.
  2. Teaches a technique which will cause the subconscious mind to make a new prediction.

The client practises the technique for one week and the anger will be substantially reduced within a week, because the client’s subconscious mind will create a new prediction and a positive behaviour.

The whole process took one hour of counselling.

PS. My prediction that the client will substantially reduce their anger in one week is based on the assumption that, of the 1208 clients I have counselled over the last 9 years, then that will be the outcome when:

  1. The client wants to change.
  2. The client is prepared to do the homework, because they expect it to work.

This particular client agreed with a. & b.

So in therapy the process of solving difficult [perceived] problems is a joint process between the client and the therapist.

 Likewise, Elon Musk does not have all the knowledge to complete the “3-Stage” process himself. He works with specialists to fill in his gaps of knowledge, skill or experience. However, how is a highly skilled conceptual thinker and can also apply principles to those concepts in a realistic way. His personal principles are also very high:

  • He Trusts and Respects himself [bordering on Narcissism] and
  • He Accepts and Commits to his projects [bordering on Obsession]

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